SOME GREAT THING

By Colin McAdam. Harcourt. 403 pp. $24

A Canadian comedian once observed on the TV show "The Kids in the Hall" that Americans knew as much about Canadians as straight people did about gays. I thought it might just be an easy laugh until the day I watched a Canadian friend confound a room full of well-educated Americans by asking them to name Canada's provinces. He himself quietly reeled off all 50 American states while he slowly received hesitant guesses, e.g., Is Ottawa a province?

In Colin McAdam's loud, lusty, sad debut novel, Ottawa seems as big as a province, full of empty space and glamorous possibility. It's the 1970s, and Canada's then-undistinguished capital is a battleground. Arrayed on one side is a small army of government officials bent on turning the sleepy former lumber town into a true seat of government. The pullulating "bureaucrats, scientists, military moustaches and the thousands of burghers they spawned" are "a glorious race of demi-giants in need of an appropriate landscape." On the other side, canny builders are just as eager to transform the landscape and make themselves rich during this major land boom. Some throw up shoddy houses and structures for a quick buck; others, like Jerry McGuinty, the novel's main narrator, have far grander ambitions. The son and grandson of master plasterers, McGuinty becomes a builder so as to offer people quality homes and buildings.

With all the swagger of an American backwoodsman of legend -- think Daniel Boone -- McGuinty fills Ottawa with houses, and his name becomes a byword for quality. He's battled the recalcitrant earth, run the gauntlet of civic planners with their endless meetings and drill-sergeanted work crews into cohesiveness and efficiency. He even believes he's maintained his modesty, but passing one of his neighborhoods as if it's nothing special, he brags, "That is true manhood . . . it's a sign that you are becoming one of the wise ones, when you know you have created something big and you can walk right past it because it is just your modest contribution to the bigness of the world. . . . It melted my insides and chafed a mile of skin, but it is just another neighborhood. I truly had the wisdom to think that."

The counterpart to this self-made man is privileged Simon Struthers, the aloof, friendless son of a member of parliament who knew two prime ministers personally. Being the son of a mandarin has helped Struthers rise high in the bureaucracy that plans to remake Ottawa while preserving its green spaces. If McGuinty has dreams of houses, Struthers wants to offer Ottawa building projects so unlikely that in his office they've been consigned to a "dreambook."

Like McGuinty, Struthers is desperate to leave his impress on the world, only in his case the desire is more urgent because all the planning he does seems to be water poured into sand. No one acknowledges his impact on the burgeoning city, and, as Ottawa grows, Struthers comes unglued, pursuing reckless affairs that include stalking. His and McGuinty's stories interweave in complex, sometimes comic ways.

While bad choices in women undo Struthers, McGuinty has to survive having chosen a dangerously unstable Irish immigrant as his wife. His Kathleen is bawdy and beautiful, "with a smile that moved through a hundred different seasons and turned them all to spring." In charge of a lunch truck that visits his worksites, she offers nourishment and mystery, disappearing for days on end and then denying the length of each absence. The novel presents many voices, all of them mesmerizing, especially Kathleen's, which is lavish, inventive, scabrous, always hovering on the verge of incoherence. There's something frantic and dazzling about her, as if she were one of those "bait balls" of whirling small fish out at sea panicked by the presence of predators.

In her voice and in every other in this book, McAdam displays a superb ear for dialogue, especially when his characters are ranting or lying about what they want. In the end, Some Great Thing is a novel about the fruitless longing to create something that will withstand the savage fist of time. Despite the roar of earth movers, the clack of bricks being laid in course after course and the scrape of plastering, the spirit of Shelley's "Ozymandias" hangs over it all. *

Lev Raphael is the author of "The German Money."